Technology × Freedom

European Bureaucrats Don't Know (or Care) What Consumers Want

June 28, 2017 invisiblehand

Big news: Europeans no longer have to pay cellular roaming fees when traveling across EU member states. TechCrunch reports:

The European Council yesterday adopted the legal act that limits how much mobile operators can charge each other — the final step in the multi-stage, multi-year process for the region’s lawmakers to agree an end to roaming charges for citizens. The ‘roam like at home’ policy will come into affect across the European Union from June 15.

Sounds wonderful, doesn't it? Nobody likes those pesky roaming fees, after all. We all know they're just another way for telecom providers to gouge us, right? Good thing the European Council stepped in to put a stop to this roaming fee nonsense! In fact, the EU is calling this "one of the greatest and most tangible successes of the EU."

But behind all the self-congratulation and media fanfare is a somewhat different story. The New York Times scratches the surface of it in the aptly headlined article, "Cellphone Roaming Charges End in Europe. Many Respond With a Yawn.":

Ms. Krastanova, 37, prefers to vacation in her native Bulgaria when she is not selling newspapers in Sofia, the country’s capital. Ms. Krastanova says she is too busy — and many of her compatriots too poor — to travel elsewhere in Europe.

“Paying the bills and providing for my 4-year-old daughter is our main priority. There is little left to splurge on trips abroad,” Ms. Krastanova said as she cross-stitched an elaborate pattern and sat in her newspaper kiosk, a cup of coffee and a pack of cigarettes resting next to her embroidery. “I don’t use roaming.”

Nor do many of her fellow Europeans. Almost two-thirds of Bulgarians have never traveled outside of their country’s borders, according to European Union statistics, and in another eight European states, including Greece and Italy, at least half of people polled also had not spent time abroad. And though other Europeans do jet across the Continent, many of those journeys also are limited to two-week summer vacations or short business trips.

The landmark policy shift, which enters into force on Thursday, comes as Europe faces pressure to speed up the overhaul of its wider digital economy to keep pace with the likes of the United States and China. But the experience of Ms. Krastanova, and many others like her, has many wondering why the region’s policy makers took 10 years — and invested significant political capital — to end roaming charges when it is not a daily concern for many of Europe’s 500 million citizens.

So most Europeans didn't actually care that much about roaming fees. But at least the telecom companies won't be able to gouge its customers for that evil thing called profit. Oh, but actually:

The biggest concern has been that the measure will push up the price of standard mobile contracts — meaning mobile users would be paying more domestically to subsidize the cost of cheaper calls and data when they’re on holiday. (Indeed, some EU operators took early opportunistic action to raise prices — blaming the incoming measure.)

Ms. Krastonova - trying to make ends meet for her and her 4-year-old daughter - will in all likelihood end up with a higher phone bill in order to keep costs down for those who travel frequently for business - people who, let's face it, are probably more well-off than Ms. Krastanova and can write off roaming fees as a business expense anyway. The poor subsidizing the rich: this is one of the EU's "greatest successes." Bravo.

If the "roam like at home" policy won't help most of Europe's working classes, and in fact may actually hurt them, why did the EU make this initiative a priority? For one thing, it's good PR. Ending roaming fees certainly sounds good on paper. But there's a deeper reason, about which the EU is perfectly transparent:

The European Commission first set out its intention to end mobile roaming fees in a 2013 reform plan, called the Telecoms Single Market initiative — a part of the DSM [Digital Single Market], so also aimed at boosting the region’s global competitiveness and fostering digital jobs by reducing market fragmentation.

From the horse's mouth:

The Union is fragmented into distinct national markets and as a result Europe is losing out on a major source of potential growth.

What is the EU's ultimate goal, and, by extension, the goal of its Digital Single Market initiative? To erase national borders and create a single European nation. Of course, such an achievement would be disastrous. How could anyone effectively govern people groups and cultures as diverse and geographically distant as France, Poland, Romania, Portugal, Ireland, and the Czech Republic? We're already seeing the deep social tensions forming in the US as a result of a federal government attempting to legislate for California the same way it does for Texas, Montana, and New Hampshire - and trying to subsidize some at the expense of others. The European project will end as badly, or worse.

But hey, at least Europeans no longer have to pay roaming fees.